I was positively delighted when Edward Hawthorne contacted me recently and offered some space in the Pouch ‘Zine to discuss 1900. Of course I said yes! I absolutely LOVE to talk (and talk, and talk, and talk…) about this variant. 1900 is my attempt to take our favorite game, conventional Diplomacy, and make it better. In my humble opinion, I succeeded. :) This article gives me an opportunity to explain why I feel this way to a new group of people. My ultimate goal is to get folks interested in this variant so that they will contact me (at VonPowell@aol.com) and ask to play, or go to The Pouch's (Manus Hand’s) DPJudge and set up a game themselves. If you do ever give 1900 a try, I think you'll agree that it is well worth your time. In fact, I expect you'll be so impressed with 1900 that you may have a tough time going back to Diplomacy!
This is the first in a series of nine or ten (!!!) articles that will examine every aspect of 1900. The purpose of this first article is to provide you with a broad overview of how 1900 came about and how it differs from conventional Diplomacy. In each of the subsequent articles, I intend to give you a detailed description of how the changes implemented in 1900 affect the play of the seven Great Powers. Much of the material that will be presented originally appeared as a series of articles in Scott Morris’s now defunct ‘zine, The Flat Earth Society. Since those TFES articles were written, I’ve accumulated some statistics and insights on game results, Great Power growth patterns, the conquest of neutrals, and
opening moves that I intend to share with you. I hope you find it all as interesting as I do.
So where to start? I guess the seed for 1900 was planted after I read an article by Stephen Agar in issue #80 of Diplomacy World. The article was entitled “New Improved Diplomacy?” and it suggested a number of ideas to improve the basic game. I thought some of Stephen’s ideas were very good. Others…hmmm…let's be kind and say that they didn't appeal to me much. I also wasn't entirely convinced that Stephen's suggestions were sufficient to make the game “better,” which was his stated goal. What would make the game better? I thought any solutions needed to address three items: play balance, player interaction, and historical accuracy.
Game results come from three sources: an excellent study of 3,485 games that appeared in issue #81 of Diplomacy World (“The Strongest Country on the Diplomacy Map” by Thaddeus Black), my records of 199 games played on America Online, and 15 games played in Tim Richardson’s The Old Republic. The GPR, short for Great Power Rating, is based on a simple formula. Basically, I divide 180 points by the number of Great Powers that participated in a solo or draw. Simply surviving does not earn a Great Power any points. The GPR is the number of points each Great Power earned divided by the number of games played.
If Diplomacy was perfectly balanced, the GPR for each Great Power would be approximately 25.71 (i.e., 180 divided by 7). While we should expect some degree of variation from this figure due to simple randomness, the numbers clearly show that some Great Powers are more equal than others are. France and Russia are heads and shoulders above the pack, while Austria-Hungary and Italy are scraping the
proverbial barrel bottom. It’s true that if we wanted total equality between positions we would play Steve Koehler’s Migraine variant. The “personality” each Great Power has is one of charms of Diplomacy. Even so, I couldn’t help but believe that each of the Great Powers could be given a more equal chance of doing well without sacrificing those aspects of Diplomacy that make it appealing. In
fact, as I’ll discuss shortly, I believed I could enhance the quirkiness of each Great Power along historical lines while leveling the playing field at the same time.
Player Interaction. While the good diplomat ensures he contacts all of the other players on a regular basis, the truth is that certain Great Powers demand more attention than others do when the game starts. The typical Prime Minister is likely to write at length to the President and Kaiser, but odds are that his missives to the Archduke and Sultan will tend to be shorter and less substantive. Why? Because there is really little that Austria-Hungary and Turkey can do for England when the game begins. If this situation could be changed so that it truly is in the best interests of each Great Power to negotiate in earnest with all of the other Great Powers, something good would be accomplished.
Historical Accuracy. This one may need some explaining. I firmly believe that a game based on historical events should create situations where the historical outcomes can occur, but don't necessarily have to occur. Diplomacy does attempt, in a satisfyingly abstract way, to replicate the "Balance of
Power" that existed in Europe at the start of WWI. Some things are done, however, that remove the "feel" of the period. As I saw it, the challenge was to give the variant some historical flavor without adding complexity (i.e., minimize new or special rules) or, most importantly, destroying the delicate balance of play as mentioned above.
I was inspired enough by these thoughts to write a letter to Douglas Kent, then the editor of Diplomacy World. This letter discussed a variant proposal that combined my own ideas with those ideas from Stephen Agar’s article that I liked. Most significantly, my proposal was based on a map of Europe at
the turn of the century. After all, Diplomacy is supposed to start in 1901, but the map is of Europe around 1913. Douglas, ever desperate for material, turned my letter into a full-fledged article (“Improving New Improved Diplomacy”) and printed it in issue #81 of Diplomacy World.
I figured that was pretty much the end of it. I was quite surprised then when I received a letter from Steve Reul saying that he thought the variant had merit and suggesting that we actually playtest it. If I would serve as Gamemaster (GM), he would round up the players. I responded to this proposal with
an enthusiastic yes and the ball started rolling.
I soon found out how much work was needed to turn a rough proposal into a game that could be played over the internet. A suitable map had to be drawn, variant rules had to be finalized, and house rules had to be determined. As soon as I set out to do these things, I realized my variant needed a
name. Since the map was of Europe at the turn of the century, I decided on 1900. Pretty clever, don’t you think? Each of my tasks took some time, but the most effort by far was invested in the map. When I finished everything and was ready to start the playtest, I’ll admit I was quite pleased with the various products. All in all, I thought I had a pretty decent variant.
Sadly, reality intruded on my visions of grandeur. Playtesting the original concept showed me that not all of my “brilliant” innovations were particularly good. In fact, a few were spectacularly bad such as making Iceland a supply center (SC). The truth is that Britain, ably played by Scott Morris, won the
first playtest in a rout of epic proportions. I had no recourse but to go back to the drawing board. A second playtest was soon organized and the revised variant was put through its paces. This time the results were much more encouraging. Only one apparent deficiency was discovered and it was easily fixed. 1900 appeared to be ready for primetime. Since that second playtest (which was won by John
Fitzgerald playing Austria-Hungary), the map and rules underwent a few more tweaks, but they both now appear locked in stone. I’ve GM’d and observed quite a few 1900 games over the last few years and I’ve been satisfied with the results. Still, it’s far too soon and too few games have been played for me to categorically state that all of Diplomacy’s ills, real or imagined, have been fixed. I am optimistic,
though, that 1900 has what it takes to be an interesting and fun game to play.
It seems appropriate at this time to thank the people who helped me get 1900 off of the drawing board by participating in the two playtests. In particular, I want to mention Tim Frankovich, Eric Grenoux, Bob Hannon, and Eric Scheid. Their encouragement and/or contributions to the overall game design were invaluable. I especially want to express my appreciation for the support that I received from Steve Reul and Scott Morris. I doubt 1900 would have ever made it to where it is now without them.
So what makes 1900 different from Diplomacy? The changes can be broken down into three categories: map changes, unit changes, and rule changes. I'll briefly discuss each of these in turn.
As I alluded to earlier, something that has always bothered me about Diplomacy is the fact that the game begins in 1901, but the map is of Europe after 1912. I'm sure each of you has lost some sleep over this transgression as well. So much for historical accuracy! I thought using a map of Europe at the
turn of the century would be a significant step towards correcting this "deficiency.” I also believed a revised map could help establish the conditions for a more balanced game.
I immediately had a tough decision to make. If my map was to be historically accurate, several potentially significant map changes were required. This was a scary prospect for two reasons. First, I was concerned that major alterations might make 1900 seem too alien to players comfortable with the
familiar Diplomacy map. This, in turn, might discourage some players from giving 1900 a try. Second and perhaps more importantly, I was worried that even minor changes to Diplomacy’s boundaries might result in unforeseen ramifications that would undermine some of my basic assumptions on how the Great Powers interacted. Later experiences with Turkey, which will be discussed in detail in a future
article, seemed to confirm that this worry was a valid one. In the end, I decided to keep the internal boundaries of the Great Powers largely the same as they are on the Diplomacy map and to only introduce major changes where historical realities or play balance considerations required that they be made. When all is said and done, I can truly say that I’m pleased with the finished product.
The version of the map that appears below, V2.6.1, was my fourth attempt at getting it right. I’ll discuss the various map changes that occurred along the way when I get to the Great Powers themselves. In the meantime, if you look carefully at that the map below, you'll notice the following:
Given the map changes above, my desire to capture some of the historical feel of the period, and the critical goal of maintaining (if not improving) play balance, I felt changes to the at-start forces of some of the Great Powers needed to be made. These changes can be summed up as follows:
As I said earlier, I did not want to make dramatic changes to Diplomacy's basic rules. With the few exceptions discussed below, the rules for Diplomacy apply to 1900 as well. In all but one case, the rule changes represent little more than minor revisions to account for the new map. The one major exception involves a series of rules that I call the "Suez Canal Rules" or SCR. This set of rules dramatically increases the need for all of the Great Powers to talk to each other from the beginning of the game, an end state I definitely hoped to achieve. The SCR serve to give 1900 a distinct character.
The minor rule changes go as follows:
The Suez Canal Rules go like this:
So, there you have it. As you can see, 1900 is, at heart, just like the game of Diplomacy that we have all come to know and love. The map, unit, and rule changes do, however, alter the dynamics of how the Great Powers interact with each other.
If you have any questions or comments on what I've written here, please feel free to contact me. I'd be delighted to hear from you. I’m also available if you decide to play a game of 1900 on the DPjudge and questions come up.
Next time we will examine Austria-Hungary in 1900. Until then…Happy Stabbing!
If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, click on the letter above.